"Brother Chase," said Deacon Burton slowly and gravely, "I have come to talk with you plainly, and I believe you will understand why. Let me say, first of all, I have no motive in coming here tonight except my love for the church and my great, may I say, affectionate regard for you as my pastor."
"I understand that," said Howard, eagerly. "I have the same feeling for the church and for you." Deacon Burton regarded him earnestly.
"I want to believe that. What I have to say is all the more painful on that account. Do you know about the report going around the town about yourself and this girl Inez Clark?"
The question was so blunt, so direct and so unexpected that Howard, who had been leaning forward towards the deacon, fell back in his chair as if the deacon had struck him. His face was pale, his hands were clenched, and he was silent. Then he said, very slowly, as if holding himself in check:
"No, Deacon Burton, I have heard nothing. This is the first----"
And then he paused with a hesitation so curious that Deacon Burton looked at him with a troubled look.
"Of course, I have lived here long enough to know that Red Hill is notorious for its gossiping habits. That is what made me slow about coming to you with this story. But it is so prevalent, it is, I am grieved to say, so generally credited, that I felt, as an officer of the church and--and--one at heart anxious for your welfare, that I ought to come to you direct and see why you did not deny the story if you had heard it and to find out the real truth about it, if you had not."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Howard said, with his usual frank straightforwardness. "I have not been charged with anything. How can I deny a thing I have never heard?"
Deacon Burton looked at his young pastor thoughtfully.
"Do you mean you have not heard what the whole town is talking about?"
The deacon eyed him curiously and closely, then his face cleared and he breathed a long deep breath as if his mind were greatly relieved.
"I don't believe you can look me in the face like that and say anything less than the truth. I haven't lived in this town nearly all my life without learning that sometimes the person most talked about is the last one to hear about it. I am going to tell you plainly the story that is going the rounds. It will then remain for you to decide what you ought to do."
Deacon Burton went on then to tell in a very plain, direct way the story Mrs. Wilson had told Mrs. Gale, with several additions such as generally accumulate around the original setting.
When he was through, Howard, who had listened gravely, but not with any signs of deep embarrassment, simply said, "Deacon Burton, if this thing you have told me did not reveal a condition of mind in this town that is a moral tragedy it would be so laughable that I ought not to pay any attention to it. But of course, I understand what it might mean to me and to the church to keep still about it. Fortunately, I can easily prove that the story has no foundation, only of course we must take into account the poor girl. I----" And at that point, to the good deacon's uneasiness, Howard paused in real embarrassment, as if something had suddenly occurred to him that entered into the situation to complicate an otherwise rather simple problem.
"How can you prove to the community that this story is false?" the deacon asked, coming back to the main point and putting the question as if to fortify his faith in his pastor against a possible doubt which his manner had raised in his mind.
Howard at once became alert and revealed his wide-awake attitude as he answered:
"The night Miss Clark called here with the proof of our Sunday evening dodger, a week ago Friday, I was here in the study alone. My sister brought the proof in here to me, I corrected it and she took it out there into the sitting-room. Miss Clark did not come in here, and I never saw her."
"So that you two, your sister and yourself, can testify that this story going the rounds is false. That is enough for me, it is impossible for me to believe such a thing of you, but, Mr. Chase, I am sorry to say there are people in Red Hill, and I fear even some in our church who would say you and your sister were--were----"
Howard impulsively jumped up.
"Do you mean to tell me, Deacon Burton, that there are people in this town who would not believe my sister's word when she was speaking the solemn truth?"
Deacon Burton eyed him sorrowfully.
"Brother Chase, I am an older man than you are, and I have seen more human nature, as you called it in you sermon last Sunday, than you have. And I have to believe that a community which is evil-minded enough to gossip about everybody as ours is, is also evil-minded enough to judge other people wrongfully. You must remember that Red Hill has not known you very long. You have not established a reputation for anything except----"
"Except--what?" Howard's familiar grin came to his assistance to relieve the deacon at this point.
"Except for a lot of splendid qualities that we all like, for a tongue that preaches a live religion and a smile that makes dogs love you," said the deacon earnestly.
Howard laughed. And if he had not remembered all the time the sleeping people in the little house, his laugh would have been one of the boisterous kind that sometimes amazed his sister and almost stunned Roy Lennox.
"What more could a fellow ask? And yet----" and instantly his face grew stern--"my reputation in this town is not good enough, nor my sister's, to make people believe us in the face of a silly story that denies all that we stand for. Think of it for a moment, Deacon Burton. Here I come into this little town with my sister, both of us with only one main purpose to build up this church and preach a real Gospel and make that the great passion of life. And in the face of that, some gossipy man or woman, careless of what it means, is willing, and according to your story, even eager, to ruin our reputation and call us liars when we deny, with proof, an impossible story that has been going the rounds. How impossible such a thing could be! What sort of a fool must the people in this little town think I am to throw down at the very start of my career the very structure I came here to build up and deny all the Christianity I profess----"
He stopped, struck by the deacon's sorrowful look.
"That is just it," said Deacon Burton with a sadness that Howard remembered long afterwards. "A few years ago something like this happened to a young minister in the Presbyterian church in Red Hill. It came out later that he was innocent, but the harm had been done and it was too late. Individuals have besetting sins and so do towns. Ours is the sin of judging others and believing evil of them. And I would not be a good friend to you if I did not tell you that in my opinion even if you and your sister deny this story and put your Christian characters in evidence against its cruelty, the town as a whole will believe you are guilty and nothing you can say or do will change its verdict."
It was an astounding statement, made with a seriousness that impressed the deacon's pastor tremendously. He had of late come to know and respect his senior deacon greatly and had already crossed the formal line that men draw between one another when nothing more is possible than a mild friendliness. There was an attractiveness about Deacon Burton that drew his minister to him, and in Howard's mind already the deacon stood for something far more than ordinary friendship.
He had been walking around the little room with his swift but noiseless step, mindful of the sleeping inmates in the house and even while speaking with deep feeling he had restrained the spoken word.
He sat down and his look reflected the older man's sadness.
"When you stop to think of it the whole thing is horrible, isn't it? The people in Red Hill, Kansas, are civilised and most of them would resent it if you told them they were not Christians. And yet they are willing to condemn without any proof an innocent person. Why it almost makes a man after all these years of Christianity wonder if there is any--it makes me think of that account in this morning's paper of the way those English people acted when that big Zeppelin was brought down during the raid on London, you remember, deacon, the news item was like this:
"`As soon as it was realised that it was a Zeppelin in flames there was pandemonium. Every one was shouting, hands were being clapped, steamers were using their sirens incessantly, and a few railway engines that were about were cock-o-doodling with steam whistles until the uproar resembled nothing so much as the advent of a new year in the shipping area.
"`Gradually the glowing mass was lost behind the outlines of houses, but the sky for some time was lit up brilliantly. Then we talked excitedly, we wrung each other's hands and acted like children, till suddenly, in sweet contralto tones, were heard the opening bars of the national anthem, and there we stood, men, women, and children, singing "God Save the King," while the gathering light was heralding the approach of another Sabbath day. Who could have imagined three years ago that a million men, women and children would cheer and sing at the sight of a score of men burning to death in midair and struggle to get hold of falling fragments of the charred remains!'
"Isn't that horrible? And isn't it depressing to think that civilised people really like to inflict pain on innocent folks? Why it's enough almost to make a man give up his profession of preaching the Gospel and go to raising hogs and alfalfa."
It was the only time in all his life that Deacon Burton ever heard such a note from his pastor, and Howard repented of it as soon as he had spoken. His clean, strong, pure, normal spirit was resilient. It bounded back into its happy free spaces and found expression in the exclamation:
"Don't remember, Deacon, what I said just then. I'm going to begin forgetting it right now. In spite of everything you say about the people here I believe there are more good folks than bad in Red Hill and I'll make the rest believe me. They can't go on believing I'm a fool. In time they will have to----"
"Wait! There is another witness to my sister's testimony and mine. I had forgotten it! Deacon Burton, would the people of Red Hill believe your daughter on oath?"
"Believe my daughter!" Deacon Burton started up in his chair with an energy he rarely exhibited. "Believe Agnes! Why they would believe her lightest word; she would not have to swear to it. But what has that to do with this matter?"
"Miss Burton was here with my sister that night when Miss Clark called. She knows all about it."
A look of great relief came over the deacon's face.
"That settles it, then. Mr. Chase, the people of Red Hill are as bad as I said they were. But if there is anything I am sure of and proud of it is the confidence every one in this town has in my daughter. Agnes has always been, even as a child, the very image of truth. The pupils in High School have a saying, `Miss Burton says so.' That is never argued. If Agnes was here that night and testifies for you, the people of Red Hill will never question her statement."
Howard looked at his senior deacon gravely.
"Let us be thankful for that." Then after a moment of silence he said:
"There's Miss Clark. What of her?"
"I've been thinking of that," the deacon answered slowly. "Of course she is as much accused as you are. But what can she do?"
"Nothing. I wish she----"
Again that curious pause on his pastor's part which had given the deacon a feeling of uneasiness before, but he waited now for the younger man to make the confidence.
He made it as if he opened a door into a new experience, feeling with every word he spoke the satisfaction of being perfectly understood.
"I haven't any minister, no bishop or father to go to and confess. Perhaps you will be willing--but--the fact is I have discovered that Inez has a feeling for me that--I am sure you will understand it, Deacon Burton, and know how this story complicates the situation--she really has or thinks she has fallen in love it sounds preposterously egotistic even to say it, but I am afraid it's true, and the feeling I have is one of pity and a desire to save the girl from trouble. I don't believe she would purposely try to do harm, but she is romantic and emotional. A city girl in a country town. You see now the reason for my hesitation at different times when you began your story?"
"Yes. You don't need to explain anything. I'm sorry all this has to come to you just as you are beginning here. It seems so unnecessary. Perhaps you need it for discipline. But, my dear Brother," the deacon said it with a note of real affection, "I have the utmost confidence in you. I believe when this matter gets cleared up we are going to have a real spell of real religion in Red Hill. But it will never come until the people of this town learn to let other people's affairs alone and hold their tongues until they know the facts and then hold them again until the Lord gives them a sign out of a clear sky to speak. We will never have a revival in this town until this evil-mindedness of the tongue is rebuked and stilled. It is our besetting sin and you are at present the most conspicuous victim, thank God you are innocent and we can prove it."
They conferred a little longer and when Howard finally declared to the deacon his determination on a certain course of action the older man was at first startled, but after a short argument he said, "Maybe you are right. Do it your own way. Act as the Spirit leads you. The Lord has given you wisdom far beyond your years. It may be he has revealed to you the wisest plan. In any case we cannot part for the night without a prayer. Let us have that together."
They kneeled side by side. Deacon Burton prayed in the same homely plain fashion that he talked, sincere, simple, trusting, self-effacing. Howard spoke out of a heart that thrilled with conflicting emotions as he thought of the day so near at hand, breaking into strong demand for the people of his own parish, the sheep of his own flock, but at the last including the community in his petition, for the "other sheep," that whether he would or not had become a part of his parish and his problems.
When the men rose they faced each other and tears were on their faces. Deacon Burton's hand went onto Howard's shoulder.
"Pastor, somehow I feel as if the Lord was going to give us a Big Blessing in this little town. We need it. When it comes, I believe somehow you will be in the centre of it."
"If I am, I hope to prove equal to it," the younger man said, not boastfully but hopefully.
Deacon Burton paused in the doorway on his way out.
"I am wondering why Agnes, knowing everything as she did, has not denied the story before this."
"Perhaps she has not heard it yet," Howard ventured to say.
"Maybe not. People do not go to her with gossip. I cannot account for her silence in any other way."
Howard said good-night and closed the door and then went back into the study and sitting at his desk looked up at the Christ in the desert. And as he looked it seemed to him he caught its deeper meaning and was fortified in his purpose to carry out the plan he had mentioned to Deacon Burton.
Sunday morning at the breakfast table Roy Lennox and his wife were talking of the great interest they felt in their first visit to the west. Neither of them before their marriage had been outside of New England. The entire atmosphere of the western life impressed them strongly. They were enthusiastic over everything they saw and heard.
"Old fellow," said Roy affectionately, "you can't imagine with what interest I am anticipating everything to-day. I haven't heard any preaching since I left the Seminary that I care about. I envy you your parish. Seems to me it must be about ideal. You're just cosily established here, aren't you? Kate and I would give anything if we were as happily settled with a people that loved and trusted us and a real chance to work and preach. He's a very fortunate fellow, isn't he, Miss Chase?"
"Yes. I think so. You are, aren't you, Howard?"
"Yes!" He said it with his characteristic cheerful grin betraying no hint of what the morning held for him. He emphasised it with a thump on the table.
"Yes! I am a fortunate fellow. It's a great place for a preacher. I don't know where the Gospel is more needed than right here in Red Hill, Kansas. It never was more needed than right this minute. I'm glad I came."
"That's what I like about him," Roy commented, still talking to Rose. "He is the only minister I know who has real enthusiasm and knows, actually knows, without question, what he is in the ministry for. I'd give anything if I had a church like this one."
Howard excused himself after breakfast and went into his study and shut the door. Rose said it was his regular habit and Roy and his wife spent the time before eleven o'clock sitting out on the little porch talking about Howard and his ideal little parish and anticipating the service so near at hand.
Only a few feet away from them, in the little study, Howard Chase was going through a mental experience new to him as he dwelt on his plan for the morning.
He was not depressed by the situation that now confronted him, but he was concerned by it, and all his deep passionate hatred of wrong and littleness smote him and made him hungry to do the right thing. His experiences had not been very many or varied. He was not yet twenty-seven years old, and the problem he now faced was entirely new and he had no precedents to follow. Besides his own future in Red Hill there was involved the fortune of this young girl, and while he had not a doubt concerning the course he intended to take, he did not know what effect it might have on Inez. His real ignorance of nearly everything concerning woman's action was, in the present instance, in his favour, for he was not going to act with any fear of possible consequences in the face of the great end he had in view.
That hour he spent in the little study was a tremendous hour to his own spirit. As he knelt by his desk, his eyes open towards the picture above it, he seemed to be gazing with his characteristic habit of abstraction at something above it and beyond it. Dreamer and impractical mystic he was not in the ordinary sense, but he was as sensitive to the inner and hidden voices as one of the prophets, and he had that rare quality that a few men possess of absolutely forgetting himself and projecting his problem in front of him as if it were a real gift on a screen. And he also possessed the rare gift of a perfect faith in the reality of the Spiritual presence, and he would talk in his prayer to the unseen just as if the person were in the room and might at any moment turn into flesh and blood and become visible.
While Howard was thus preparing his soul for the event of the morning two scenes were being enacted in two other places that were destined to have important bearing on the astonishing outcome of the day. If Howard had been aware of them it might have modified his own course, and yet it might only have intensified it and made it even more emphatic, if that were possible.
On reaching home that Saturday night after his interview with his pastor Deacon Burton had mused in his quiet but not ponderous fashion over the fact of his daughter's knowledge of the ministers innocence and her silence in the face of it. And in the morning he felt so strongly impressed by it that he ventured to speak to her before she went up to the church, as her habit was, to rehearse before the service, her organ music.
The deacon's habit was very direct as illustrated in his interview with Howard. It was the same with members of his own family. And while Mrs. Burton was busy with some part of the house work, and the two were alone he suddenly said:
"Agnes, have you heard this story which has been going around town this last week about Mr. Chase and Inez?"
"Yes, father," she said after a rather long moment.
"And yet you know it is not true?"
"I know it is not," she said, with quick emphasis, the colour deepening on cheek and brow.
"And you have said nothing. You have not denied it."
Her answer came even slower than before.
"I have waited--I hardly know why----"
"Mr. Chase told me last night that you were there the Friday night when Inez brought the proof."
"Why has not Mr. Chase himself----"
"Agnes, he actually had not heard the story until I told him. The charges made against him, if true, would ruin his character and force him to resign. You know the story is cruelly false. How could you keep still?"
"Father," she spoke faintly, "I had been waiting for Mr. Chase himself to speak, to act--to do something. It was all so horrible, it was so widely circulated, I supposed he must have known--I have been very unhappy over it----"
"Daughter," Deacon Burton spoke sternly, "the establishment of his innocence rests with you. Mr. Chase would not appeal to you. Inez' word would carry no weight with Red Hill. You will surely act when the moment arrives to set him right with the people."
"Father!" she said, with sudden vehemence, "I will do--I will surely do my part in the matter." She added with a low voice: "It is a cruel wrong! It does not seem possible that human beings can be so wicked."
She picked up her music and went out. Her father watched her thoughtfully and seemed to be deeply absorbed in something not directly connected with the story.
Inez' father, George Clark, the inventor and printer, lived in a world of wheels and pinions and cogs and belts and pulleys and sliding gauges, and sometimes whole days passed without any sense of the world outside his dream of the new typesetting machine which was to revolutionize the printing industry.
But coming into his den back of his printing shop late Saturday night, he heard voices outside in the alley back of the building.
He had been annoyed at different times by petty thieving, small parts of his inventions were stolen, copper wire and parts of rubber tubing and some bronze castings had been taken from a small annex behind his shop. And suddenly awake to the possibility of discovering the perpetrators, he crossed the room quietly before he had turned on a light and stopped near a half window high in the wall which happened to be partly open, through which the voices came.
And listening there that night at about the hour Deacon Burton and the minister were together in the study, George Clark heard, for the first time, from the coarse lips of several Red Hill youths, who formed part of a gang that was out late at night, the story that had been going the rounds, by this time, exaggerated and multiplied into a story so impossible in its vulgar details that the inventor became at once all father, and his first impulse was to rush out and strike down the ribald jesters gloating over a girl's folly and a minister's downfall.
And then his heart died in him as the question raised at a bound in his mind--"Can it have any foundation in fact? Inez--she was a queer girl, romantic, restless, amusement loving--what if--he had neglected her, she had no mother, she was alone--impressionable----"
He fell back from the window and the sweat stood out on his face. He waited until the boys outside moved down the alley, then, without turning on a light, he groped his way through the shop, let himself out on the street, and started for his home.
Afterwards he remembered he walked around several blocks before he found himself in front of his own little house.
Going in, he found the house dark. Inez had gone to bed. At first he was tempted to wake her and question her, and confront her with it all as a relief to his own sudden excitement and suspense. But he finally controlled himself, resolved, however, to have it out with her in the morning.
The suddenness of his opening the subject was in direct contrast with his usual abstracted, dreamy attitude, but Inez did not seem surprise or startled by it.
He waited until after breakfast. Then, as Inez was getting up to remove the dishes, her father, who had watched her moodily during the meal, said, harshly, "Inez, I want to talk with you about this story going the rounds about you and Mr. Chase. What have you been doing?"
Inez sat down. Her face was set with a hardness that did not belong to her soft features.
"There's nothing in it. Mr. Chase never said or did anything. He is pure and good. I have never known any one in all my life like him."
"How can you prove it?"
"I don't have to. Miss Burton was there that night. She knows I never went into his study."
"Miss Burton!" George Clark gasped, and his eyes gleamed. "But why have you not come to me? Why have you not said something?"
"Father, have you lived in Red Hill all these years not to know that when the reputation of some one was at stake a denial was always taken as a confession of guilt?" She said it scornfully.
"Why does not Miss Burton deny it then?"
"I don't know. Perhaps she has not heard."
"Why doesn't Chase say or do something?"
"I don't know." Inez spoke wearily. "Perhaps he hasn't heard."
Her father got up so hastily that his chair fell over. He came around the table and took Inez into his arms. He had not held her so since she was a little child.
Inez lay for a moment there as still and unresponsive as a dead person. Then, suddenly, she flung her arms about her father's neck, and began to cry.
"Oh, father! send me away! I can't bear to stay here any more. I want to leave Red Hill."
"Send you away! Where!"
George Clark was bewildered.
"I don't know," said Inez. Her cry stopped almost, as soon as it began. She seemed on the point of confidence, then suppressed it. And slipping out of her father's arms, began to take the dishes from the table.
George Clark eyed her doubtfully.
"Mr. Chase, Miss Burton, somebody must refute this story. They must clear you of blame."
"They will in time, I am sure," Inez said with a calmness in strange contrast with her recent emotion.
"They'll have to or they will hear from me," Clark, like many introspective and visionary people when roused, was vehement and loud.
Inez did not say anything, but went on with her work. When she was through with it she went up stairs, and came down about half-past ten, dressed for church.
"You are not going to go to church, Inez?"
"Why not?" she spoke, defiantly. "I am going over to rehearsal."
"You are a queer girl, Inez."
She stopped as she was going out.
"Maybe I am, father. But I am not half so queer as I might be--if----"
She went out without having given him the full confidence he might have earned if he had built up through her girlhood a real fatherhood, and he sat there troubled and dissatisfied over the whole thing except the knowledge of her innocence, and when it was time to go over to church, he went, somehow anticipating a scene, and yet he had no reason for it in his own mind.
Scores of people were passing through the streets going to the Congregational Church. The chorus rehearsal was interrupted by the early comers. Sunday School in Red Hill was held in the afternoon, one of the few towns that still held to that hour. Eleven o'clock was known as church hour and long before the little clock on the wall opposite the organ pointed the time, the building was crowded, the annex had overflowed, seats had been brought in again from the parsonage and the next house, groups of men and boys stood outside the open windows and bunches of men who could not get in even to the little vestibule could be seen together engaged in conversation carried on in a low tone, but evidently centering around the new minister and the latest scandal.
Roy Lennox and his bride seating with Rose were intensely interested in the event. Roy watched every movement of his old chum. The spirit of hero worship completely invested him. He whispered to Kate as Howard went up and took his seat, "Isn't he just splendid! Isn't it great! The whole thing is great! I'd give anything if I had such a church and such a people!"
There was an air of expectancy over the room. Agnes Burton, at the organ, betrayed no unusual feeling, but her inward feeling was tumult. Inez, in the chorus, sat looking straight forward, her hands clasped over her hymn book, her thoughts anywhere except on the order of worship.
And over the whole of that strange service as it went on, up to the time when Howard rose to preach, a powerful Presence brooded unseen and unnoted by any of the hearts that beat fast, unseen and unnoted by all except the minister himself as he rose to give his prophet message to the people of Red Hill that day.